On the Cusp of Craftsmanship

September 27, 2013

I learned how to design and code websites in the early 2000s. I remember going through a few tutorials on W3 Schools and messing around with table-based design, struggling to understand what was going on. Then I stumbled across Designing With Web Standards by Jeffrey Zeldman and Bulletproof Web Design by Dan Cederholm. Both books taught me that designing and building for the web consisted not only of wrangling code, but more importantly, of craftsmanship. Reading Zeldman naturally brought me to A List Apart, which taught me that there was a real community springing up around web design. So many tutorials focused on half-assed solutions, SEO, or marketing practices without paying attention to the craft of building websites. I found myself in awe of these people and resources that were devoted to best practices, actual thinking about craft, and sharing with and growing a community around quality web design. It was a revolution not only for me personally, but for the web community as well.

I think that the email design community is on the cusp of a similar revolution. Recent years have seen a small community form around email design and a growing body of literature about the craft (or black art) of email design. A handful of companies and people are beginning to share their knowledge with the industry and new consumer trends have spawned new email techniques. The email design community feels very much like the greater web design community did in the early to mid 2000s.

This year is an important moment in the email industry. A year where people and companies come together to build a real community around email design and craftsmanship. I think the event that marks that moment is The Email Design Conference thrown by Litmus. And I think two things will happen:

Craftsmanship and What It Means

Just like web design in the early 2000s, email design is about to transition from a dark art to a honed craft. Web design used to be all about tables and inline JavaScript and styles. As the industry matured, a greater focus was put on the separation of markup (HTML), presentation(CSS), and interactivity (JavaScript) as well as the use of semantic markup to add meaning to pages and allow a wider audience to access information on the web. This transition allowed designers and developers to refine techniques and tooling around building for the web. Recent years have seen this reflected in the development of better tools like CSS frameworks, JavaScript libraries, and tools for building applications.

This transition allowed web designers and developers to stop worrying about headaches associated with coding sites and instead focus on instilling their work with a sense of craftsmanship. It allowed for real care and thought to be put into products, and more importantly, once crafting web sites was made easier, it allowed for people and businesses to focus on producing great content for these well crafted products. Once the techniques and tooling are built up around an industry, the cognitive load of dealing with bullshit tasks is lifted and more focus can be spent on creating great content and products for that industry - enriching not only the lives of the people working in the industry, but more importantly, the consumers of that industry.

In the email design community, we have seen more and more attention paid to the craft of designing and coding HTML emails. While email marketing has traditionally been the domain of marketers and (sometimes sleazy) business types, companies like Campaign Monitor, MailChimp, and Litmus have been working hard to share information and techniques with the community and users. Both Campaign Monitor and MailChimp have amazing resources and guides that educate designers and users about crafting emails - allowing them to grow their skills and focus on what is important in their campaigns - the content.

Like with CSS frameworks, email design now has a growing collection of patterns, frameworks, boilerplates, and awesome tools available to designers and developers.

A number of well-known email designers and community advocates have been sharing their knowledge, too. Just like in the web design community, the email community now has a few luminaries that are hell-bent on sharing knowledge and improving their craft by not only experimenting with techniques, but discussing them in the open. People like Nicole Merlin, Elliot Ross, Anna Yeaman, Alex Ilhan, Brian Graves, and Becs Rivett are doing an amazing job sharing their knowledge and discussing best practices.

Once there are best practices and refined techniques established, designers and businesses can focus on enhancing their content and message. Hopefully they can take their content from just a sales pitch to providing real value to their lists and building a dialogue and relationship with their subscribers. And while email design still remains a bit of a dark art, with dodgy email clients always frustrating designers, the open sharing of information about techniques and the building of tooling around email design will help the transition from dark art to craft in the future.

A Growing Community

The discussion of craft and technique in email design is finally being aided by a growing community of helpful and honest designers, developers, and companies. This community is what facilitates the refinement of knowledge and best practices, and is wildly important to the industry.

While there has always been a community around email marketing, it has traditionally been relatively small and populated more by marketing types than designers and developers that care about evolving the industry. We have recently seen more people speaking up about email design and trying to mature the practice. Sites like Email Design Review and the Campaign Monitor Forums provide designers with invaluable insights into the theory and process of building great emails.

Another sign of a maturing industry and community is the literature it produces. Authors have written books that both discuss the practical coding of emails as well as the theory behind email marketing. I recently released my own book, Modern HTML Email, that discusses modern email design and development. I know that designers smarter than myself will only add to that body of literature in the future. I look forward to seeing what they have to say.

I believe that the watershed moment for the email design community will turn out to be The Email Design Conferences hosted by Litmus. While there have been a number of email-focused conferences before, most notably ExactTarget Connections and All About Email Live, TEDC13 is the first conference to focus solely on the craft of email design and marketing instead of the services and businesses surrounding it. What is more impressive is that Litmus has refused outside sponsorship so that attendees won’t have to sit through sales pitches and presentations. All of the presenters are industry leaders looking to share their knowledge and talk about craft, not sales people pushing their latest service on email marketers.

The web design community already has dozens of conferences devoted to their craft. TEDC13 feels like the first one really devoted to ours. I’m excited to see what Litmus has in store for the future and hope other organizations take the hint and start pitching in with the community beyond just blasting out whitepapers with statistics and links to their newest services.

What We Need

While it is amazing to see our industry mature, I think a few things are still needed before jumping that hurdle into the realm of craftsmanship. I’ll outline them here:

A lot of progress has recently been made in the email design community. I think there is still a lot to do. I’m very excited about the future of email design and truly believe that we are witnessing the birth of a real community. In the next year, I think we will see email design transition from the ugly cousin of web design to the respected craft that it should be. It feels very much like the web of 2004 and, if that’s the case, email design looks like it will have a fascinating and bright future.

The question is: how will you help shape it?